A Japanese Singing Competition Blooms In Colorado : Code Switch Kohaku Uta Gassen is a popular singing competition with roots in Japan. It came to the U.S. with a generation of immigrants from that country, and Denver's Kohaku is still thriving today.
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A Japanese Singing Competition Blooms In Colorado

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A Japanese Singing Competition Blooms In Colorado

A Japanese Singing Competition Blooms In Colorado

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kohaku Uta Gassen - hope I said that correctly - is a singing competition that began in Japan shortly after World War II and eventually spread to the U.S., kind of like NBC's "The Voice" but with Japanese music. The competition almost completely disappeared from U.S. cities after the first generation of Japanese immigrants died, although it continues in a few places that have large Japanese populations. And today, Denver's tiny Japanese community holds its 40th singing contest. Colorado Public Radio's Chloe Veltman reports.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: At the Buddhist temple in downtown Denver, Junko Higdon is rehearsing a traditional song for one of the Colorado Japanese community's biggest annual events.

JUNKO HIGDON: (Singing in Japanese).

VELTMAN: Higdon is one of 30 amateur singers competing in two teams at this year's Kohaku Uta Gassen, which means red and white singing battle.

HIGDON: White is for the men. Red is for the women. And whoever gets the most point out of the team wins a trophy.

VELTMAN: U.S. Kohaku contests, like the one in Denver, are spinoffs of a massive, annual, televised singing event in Japan.

SEIJI TANAKA: This is a very traditional Japanese event. You don’t have to leave Denver to enjoy one day Japanese culture.

VELTMAN: That's Seiji Tanaka. He chairs the Denver Kohaku organizing committee and has been involved with the event since it started 40 years ago. He says Japanese communities across the U.S. decided to replicate the original Kohaku as a way to entertain first-generation immigrants. When those people passed away around 20 years ago, most cities stopped producing it.

TANAKA: We tried to continue to entertain, but no audience, just like fishing when no fish there.

VELTMAN: Denver has a Japanese population of fewer than 3,000 people, but Tanaka felt an attachment to Kohaku, so he decided to change things up.

TANAKA: We start finding new fish in the new generation people.

VELTMAN: The events now includes Japanese rock music, like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in Japanese).

VELTMAN: ...And English songs, like this one from the musical "Les Miserables."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Hear my prayer.

VELTMAN: The sing-off used to be the event's biggest draw. But it now includes things like traditional Japanese dancing and Taiko drumming. And it's also becoming more diverse.

Daniel Medina is a non-Japanese musician performing in a band at this year's Kohaku. He met Japanese lead singer Jin Kazama on Craigslist.

DANIEL MEDINA: All of my Japanese knowledge came from videogames of Final Fantasy, and then I just got lucky meeting Jin and getting to be surrounded by Japanese culture.

TANAKA: If you can't beat them, you have to join them.

VELTMAN: Denver Kohaku organizer Seiji Tanaka says the efforts to diversify are paying off. But he's also nostalgic for the old days.

TANAKA: Many older people cannot understand new pop-type music. But in order to keep going, we need to have that kind of balancing things.

VELTMAN: And in order to keep Denver's Kohaku Uta Gassen going, Tanaka, who's 76, is now on the hunt for a successor. For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman in Denver.

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